“Mommy Tracking”: Learning from One Woman’s Story

Kelley Voelker worked at Deutsche Bank for 14 years without a promotion. A vice president with the bank’s securities lending desk in New York City, she was a competent and reliable employee, consistently earning good performance reviews. Yet despite her strong qualifications, she remained in the same position year after year, stagnating. Her lack of promotion wasn’t because of her experience; it wasn’t because of her commitment. It was, Ms. Voelker claimed, because she was “mommy-tracked.”

“Mommy tracking” is a passive-aggressive (and sometimes plain aggressive) form of discrimination against women in the workplace. It refers to the phenomenon of employers making employment decisions that favor male employees, and occasionally childless female employees, over female employees with children. Like in Ms. Voelker’s case, women with children are often passed over for promotions or denied positions with higher responsibilities—and by extension, higher pay. Childless women, too, may even find themselves subject to corporate decisions based on the assumption that they plan to have a family at some point in the future. Even more troublingly, new mothers may be edged out of their positions after returning from maternity leave, or forced to relinquish some of their job duties—a form of discrimination which Ms. Voelker also experienced. She claims that the workplace climate she faced after returning from her last maternity leave was a driving factor behind her decision to file a lawsuit against Deutsche Bank in 2011 for pregnancy discrimination.

In her complaint, Ms. Voelker spoke of a number of factors which contributed to what she referred to as a “hostile and degrading” atmosphere towards women in the company. Particularly in the New York financial industry, employees are subject to high demands and are pressured to take long hours—something that Ms. Voelker’s work supervisors evidently did not believe her capable of doing as a working mother. Ms. Voelker claimed that ever since her first maternity leave in 2003, her supervisors “never took her seriously because she was a woman starting a family, and this was seen as a huge negative within the company.” She felt that her male colleagues alienated and disrespected her, asking her questions such as “When is your husband gonna get it together so you can stay home with the kids?” One of Ms. Voelker’s superiors “expressed his doubts” that she would return to the company after her first maternity leave, and even after her final leave in 2010, Ms. Voelker was met with a “chilling welcome” and was immediately pressured to take on a more flexible, reduced role—despite the fact that she had continually asserted her desire for a long-overdue promotion.

Further compounding the issue, Deutsche Bank fired Ms. Voelker in 2012, one year after she filed her discrimination lawsuit. She was the only member of her 500-person team to be let go as part of a “reduction in force.” Ms. Voelker asserted that the bank lacked justification for her dismissal, and claimed that she was fired in retaliation for her discrimination complaint after a lengthy “campaign of behavior by company management to sideline her and induce her resignation.”

“I worked extremely hard and, as a working mom, I sacrificed so much. I just wanted to be treated equally and no different than my male colleagues,” Ms. Voelker told ABC News shortly after filing the suit. After a more than 4-year dispute, Deutsche Bank and Ms. Voelker were able to reach a settlement in the case on December 22, 2015.

Unfortunately, not all women’s stories of mommy-tracking will have the same happy ending. Working mothers who are attempting to begin or preserve their employment, particularly in fast-paced, high-pressure work environments like those of New York City’s financial industry, are all likely to face some form of backlash for their choice. Gender discrimination is not always immediately obvious: it can begin slowly, with offhand comments and casual assumptions, but may quickly escalate into full-blown criticism and harassment.

Many women with families simply ignore discriminatory treatment at work, choosing to avoid embroilment with coworkers and their HR department. But small conflicts can quickly grow into large ones if not dealt with. Women who don’t report mommy-tracking may fear retaliation from their workplace for speaking up, much like what Kelley Voelker endured. Although retaliation for reporting gender discrimination—or for requesting FMLA leave—is legally actionable, most women who suspect that their workplace will retaliate don’t want to risk losing their jobs or face a potential legal battle. Therefore, if a conflict is small enough to ignore without much consequence, it’s tempting to do just that. All New York women should be aware, however, that taking action in any form can greatly benefit them in the long run.

According to workplacefairness.org, women with children are 79% less likely to be recommended for hire, 100% less likely to be promoted, and are generally offered salaries at least $10,000 less than what “a similarly situated male” would be offered for the identical position. Knowing this information, here are some steps that mothers can take to fight workplace inequality and overcome “mommy-tracking.”

  • Mothers seeking to preserve their employment during pregnancy or after returning from maternity leave should take care to document every instance of discrimination or mommy-tracking behavior that they encounter—whether or not they choose to immediately make a report. It is critical to keep track of any form of discrimination or harassment, however small or inconsequential it might seem. Record the date, time, and place of the incident, and note what was said and who was present.
  • During pregnancy and following maternity leave, women should keep detailed notes on their work performance, recording the work that they have completed (with quantitative information where possible), supervisors’ comments and feedback, and any job evaluations they have had. In the event that your employer retaliates against you for being a working mother, it is important to have proof that your job performance was not a legitimate cause for termination (as your employer may claim it was).
  • Working mothers seeking to be hired at a new job should expect inadequate salary offers and prepare themselves to respond. By carefully researching the salary guidelines for the position they are applying to and practicing negotiation skills, they can make it much more difficult for an employer to justify an unfair salary offer.
  • Learn about your rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This is a federal law designed to protect employee rights during a medical or family-related situation that necessitates leave from work—including pregnancy. Information about the FMLA from our firm, and tips about dealing with potential violations, can be found here and here.
  • Know that there are multiple avenues through which you can file a complaint pertaining to mommy-tracking. When it comes to discrimination or harassment, steps can often be taken to resolve the issue internally. If your company has an HR department, you might start there. If you belong to a union, you can speak to your representative and file a grievance. If the discrimination is systemic, with your boss or a superior at the source of the problem, or if your complaint centers around employment discrimination (i.e. you were denied a deserved promotion or passed over for a raise), you may want to file a report with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC is the federal agency in charge of enforcing many anti-discrimination laws—including the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Finally, you have the option to hire an attorney and pursue legal action against your company, as Kelley Voelker did. No woman should feel unwelcome, alienated, or discriminated against in the workplace, and especially not for her decision to become a working mother. The Law Office of Christopher Q. Davis has extensive experience dealing with discrimination and retaliation cases in New York City, including those involving pregnancy discrimination, FMLA violations, and discrimination against working mothers. We are available at any time to assist you with any questions you might have about “mommy tracking” and gender discrimination in the workplace. If you suspect that you or someone you know may have been the victim of New York workplace discrimination or retaliation due to pregnancy or motherhood, please contact our offices at (646) 430-7930 or fill out a contact form here. We are happy to provide free consultations to all of our potential clients.